Saturday 13 October 2012

Cities and Towns

This topic first appeared here eight years ago and in that time much new information and books have come into my possession I felt compelled to revise the old text and eventually develop a campaign for the period. Western Europe experienced dynamic change following the Black Death of 1347/48. The death toll estimates range from 30 – 60 percent leaving few cities with a population of more that 3 – 5,000. Within the empire, 90% of the 4,000 settlements within the empire had a population of 1,000 inhabitants creating a landscape of abandoned villages and hamlets; the survivors having fled to “safer” havens of urban locations.  

Military self-sufficiency

The system of guilds will be covered at length in another post, but during the 15th century it was not uncommon to find city guilds boasting an armoury equipped for every alarm. Each town had quantity of equipment and specialist to maintain and repair it. Fletchers, smiths, stable hands, crossbow makers and cannon founders supplied their own town’s needs with a small number of cities developing into an armaments industry, such as Nuremberg.

The production of cannon by the early 15th century was not limited to large cities or town as even small village were able to produce them. Internal needs prohibited many cannon founders to accept contracts from outside, a rule strictly enforced by the Hanseatic League (1385).

How the individual citizen was to be equipped depended on their status leaving only the wealthy to supply mounted contingents, property owners, armour and weapons and with the poor supplied with any weapons left in the armoury.

City Walls

High walls became the primary form of defence for cities, towns, castles and manor houses even hamlets would have some form of rudimentary protection. An escalade by the besieger was the most common form of taking a city, a problem easily solved by raising the height of the walls. Naturally, as the technology evolved from stone shot to iron shot from cannon cast in a single piece, the defence of a city or town became problematic. Such weapons inspired fear to collapse a city’s resistance as witnessed by Charles VII of France capture of sixty towns in one year.

To counter this, urban centres thickened their walls as an improvement and it also facilitated the placement of its own artillery and having guns than an enemy could be sufficient to frustrate a besieger. However simple the solution it did require an inordinate amount of time and expense leaving many cities content to make small scale repairs. 


Divided into four quarters, the defence of each sector became the reasonability of the guilds located there. This worked well for a time as guild members knew their neighbours and were ever vigilant towards strangers, yet extreme vigilance proved difficult for protracted periods. Day and night time watches needed to be maintained and prepared for an occasional expedition outside its walls. Guilds were also responsible to spend time on weapons drill and tournaments were organized to foster a level of rivalry among the guilds and appeal to the social interests of the community. These were for the most part shooting competitions with bow or crossbow and for the urban elite there were mounted competitions.

By the first half of the 15th century, economic prosperity meant a growth in population of urban centres producing more apprentices and journeymen. Yet not all guilds grew equally leaving some quarters with less manpower than others. To fill the deficit, bands of mercenaries could be hired to replace the local citizenry for the duty of watch or the expeditions outside the walls. Between 1414 and 1454, Danzig found difficulties to keep its citizen soldiers from deserting their musters and lists.

Keeping abreast of the technological advances coupled with the economic and social changes the ability of cities and towns to defend itself quickly eroded, but viewing the greater picture their rivals suffered no less.

Possible Application to a campaign system

The older DBA2.2 did include a campaign system for 2 to 6 players. Each player controlled a realm consisting of three cities, one of which one served as its capital. The number of recruits raised for each campaign season depended on the number of cities in your possession. The attacker had an option to challenge an opponent on the field or besiege one of his cities. Victory on the field or cities captured generated prestige points. 

A campaign game set in the 15th century should offer possible conflicts between the Bishoprics, the state, cities and the noble families. There are some campaign systems done earlier but these would need to be expanded to allow conflict situations to be generated at different levels. The possibilities surrounding the North German States to include Denmark, Sweden, Poland and Russia will prove an interesting challenge. 

Revised 26 October 2020


Urban Life in 15th-century Germany,

Towns and Defence in Later Medieval Germany, D. Eltis, Nottingham Medieval Studies 

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